It is often said that what you see is what you get, but with Lastings Milledge, perception and reality aren’t always a perfect match. Labeled as a bad apple in both New York and Washington, the 24-year-old outfielder might be better described as a misunderstood superstar in the making. There have been few questions about his raw talent, but when the Pirates acquired Milledge from the Nationals last month, many Pittsburgh fans wondered whether the former top prospect in the Mets organization was worth the gamble. Not only was the popular and charismatic Nyjer Morgan leaving town, he was being replaced by a player who brought with him, deserved or not, a less-than-stellar image. Rehabbing at Triple-A Indianapolis when he sat down for this interview, and since called up, Milledge talked about his reputation, his role models in the game, and getting an opportunity to live up to his vast potential with the Pirates.
David Laurila: How would you describe Lastings Milledge, the person?
Lastings Milledge: I look at myself, definitely, as an energetic kind of guy. I’m a guy who kind of makes sure that everybody is OK, and makes sure…you know, sometimes pitchers get down on themselves, and sometimes hitters get down on themselves, and I’m the kind of guy who likes to listen to people and see how they feel and see what they’re thinking-stuff like that, because I like somebody to do the same for me. If I’m not feeling too good or something like that, I like to have somebody listen to me. So, I usually try to help people. Not to tell them that everything is going to be okay, but at the same time, that they’re good enough to be here. Sometimes you just need reassurance from somebody else.
DL: According to Tom Goodwin, who played with both, one thing that differentiated Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa is that Bonds didn’t care what people thought of him, while Sosa wanted everyone to like him. How you feel about the way you’re perceived?
LM: Well, first of all, you’re not going to make everybody happy. I can barely make my own family happy, let alone everyone, so making everybody happy is almost impossible. But what I really try to do is… I just try to play the game hard, because no matter what you do off the field, what matters is how you play the game between the lines and how you respect the game. What I try to do is to play the game hard and play for the team, and I let people draw their own conclusions from there.
DL: Has the media had much of an impact on your career thus far?
LM: Definitely. I think the media has kind of helped me… really helped me get more drive, because I always feel that I need to prove myself to somebody, no matter what. And I think that all around the league, everybody has to prove themselves, every year. When I have people doubting me, and doubting my talent, and stuff, it kind of gives me a little extra drive to want to do better. Not only prove them wrong, but to show everybody that I can be successful at the biggest level.
DL: One criticism you’ve received is that you play with perhaps too much flair. Given that baseball is a game and is supposed to be fun, do you think that’s fair?
LM: Well, I mean… the game has changed so much over the last decade, and I really think that people forget that… the older the game gets, the game changes. I think that has a lot to do with the change in salary, and the change in [there being] a lot of youth; there are a lot more 21- and 22-year-olds in the big leagues now than there’s ever been, you know. I just think that the game is changing a lot. And I think that with all the ESPN, and all the reality shows, it’s more looked at as entertainment now. People are starting to really, like, “OK, I’m going to see Barry Bonds hit 73.” That’s entertainment, you know what I mean? I just think that’s kind of coming up a little bit. So, yeah, it’s not fair, but you take it with a grain of salt and kind of move on.
DL: Do you feel that there are any racial double standards at play in those perceptions?
LM: Well, I don’t like to get into race too much, but… I don’t know. I think it’s just kind of like… being a black American ballplayer, with how we’ve grown up and how we play the game, we play the game a little bit different. We’re very passionate and we’re more emotional. I think we’re a bit emotional; we like to show our emotions out on the field. And I don’t think that’s wrong. I think that sometimes people think you’re disrespecting the game, but… what I have to say about flair is that it’s more, like, emotional than anything. It’s just showing emotion and showing how much fun you’re having in the game. I don’t think it’s, “Oh yeah, I just want to look pretty out there.” I think it’s more of an emotion, you know.
DL: Which players have had the most influence on your style of play?
LM: I would have to say that, of all people, it’s probably Rickey Henderson. He was a guy who had a lot of flair, and he was a guy who knew what it took to stay and he knew how hard he had to work. So, I feel that I was in his same category, and that’s the same thing he told me. He was like, “Man, I went through the same thing you’re going through.” Because, I’m not a robot; you know what I mean? I play the game at such a high energy that sometimes I get a little emotional. I just like to show people how much fun I’m having.
DL: Your father was a police officer. What impact did that have on you growing up, particularly in regards to discipline?
LM: He was very strict on me. One thing was that, whenever I would be punished, I d be punished on the baseball field. But he never took the game away from me, because ever since I was five, he knew that I was going to be a big league ballplayer. I never knew… I didn’t really get it until probably, like, a couple of years ago. But he was very strict on me. I didn’t really get the… I had a couple of friends, but not too many, because I was always doing baseball activities. I was always concentrating on baseball.
DL: Which of your teammates has most influenced you since you reached the big leagues?
LM: I really like to talk baseball with the managers, and I was really close to Jerry Manuel more than anybody. He kind of helped me to understand the mental side of the game, and I would always pick his brain. I think he’s probably had the most influence on my career thus far.
DL: What was it like to play for Manny Acta in Washington?
LM: Manny was cool. He was a good guy. He took a different approach; he was more laid back than other managers. He always stressed that you don’t have to argue to get your point across. He was a very positive guy, and I like him a lot.
DL: Given the lack of talent on the Nationals roster, do you feel that it was unfair that he got fired?
LM: Well, they have a lot of talent on the team-it’s just not coming together. But this is baseball, and you can have the best team on paper and still not make the playoffs or still not have a plus season. A plus season is winning the World Series. That’s a successful season, and anything else is like a 100-loss season. But they just have to find a way to put it together, because they have the talent. They just have to grow as a team. That’s it.
DL: What has your relationship been with the general managers of the teams you’ve been with? Have you had much communication with them?
LM: Not really, because I just like to go about my business on the field. I did have a good relationship with Jim Bowden, because I’ve known Jim ever since I was 16. He used to come to watch me play, so I’ve known Jim for a long time. But, other than that… I had a good relationship with Omar [Minaya] as well, but that’s about it. I don’t really like to get caught up in all that. I just like to handle what I need to handle between the lines.
DL: Have you had an opportunity to talk to Neal Huntington yet? I assume he called you after making the trade?
LM: Yeah, he called and I spoke to him briefly, but nothing too in detail. That’s about it.
DL: Have you talked to Ian Snell about the Pirates organization?
LM: No. I mean, everybody has different takes on an organization, but what I have to control is that I have a good opportunity here. And being from Bradenton, I get to stay home for spring training, so I’m just trying to make the best of my opportunity, no matter what.